The Ballroom is a Seamlessly Woven Story

The early years of the 20th century marked a time of tremendous social change:  a war like nothing anyone had experienced was about to break out across Europe, women would soon agitate for and win the right to vote, the medical breakthroughs of penicillin and a vaccine for tuberculosis were just around the corner.  It was the dawn of the modern era.  Yet as the setting and incidents in The Ballroom reveal, the mental health profession was in a dark age, and a long way from understanding the plight of women and the poor.

In 1909, Anna Hope’s great-great grandfather was a patient in a “lunatic asylum” similar to the fictional Sharston Asylum in the novel.  When she discovered her great-great grandfather’s records, she also found that the asylum had a spectacular ballroom.  That ballroom is the setting and in part the inspiration for the love story at the center of the novel.

Photo Credit: Mark Davis for Daily Mail Online.

Photo Credit: Mark Davis for Daily Mail Online.

At Sharston Asylum men and women live separately, meeting only during once-weekly dances in the ballroom.  Ella Fay, a spinner at a local mill, was admitted to the asylum after breaking a window where she worked; she is diagnosed with hysteria.  She was angry, as she explained to the admitting doctor, but not mad. No, not mad.  She and the other women in the factory worked in close, dark, stifling conditions. She wanted just a little light, a little air to work by.  Her rebellious, free spirit captivates John Mulligan, a patient who suffers from depression, a grief he cannot shake after the death of his child.  He works digging graves in the asylum’s mass graveyard, which the residents all fear.  After he and Ella meet in the ballroom, they begin a correspondence of secret letters and their love grows.

Treating the patients is Charles Fuller, a young doctor anxious to make his name.  His chosen specialty is eugenics.  He writes to Winston Churchill in favor of what G. K. Chesterton called “’The Feeble-Minded Bill both for brevity and because the description is strictly accurate.’”

Churchill backed what now seems an impossibly backward measure in the modern age – the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913.  The law called for sending the chronically poor and “feeble-minded” to labor camps where they would not be allowed to procreate; in fact, many supporters called for forced sterilization.

Sharston Asylum is filled with the feeble-minded and chronic paupers, a perfect laboratory in which Dr. Fuller hopes to make his name by exploiting this new wave of medicine that punished the poor and uneducated for economic and social circumstances beyond their control.  Fuller’s treatments threaten Ella and John, whose love for each other is instant and longlasting.

At its heart The Ballroom is the tender, heartbreaking love story about two people whose destinies are at once bound as well as divided by the setting in which they find themselves.  The social and historical backdrop of The Ballroom, so seamlessly woven into the story, gives it the power to look with fresh eyes on our own time and its attitudes about mental illness and poverty.

Listen to an excerpt The Ballroom